The Plan vs. Reality
No matter how hard one tries,
there are always surprises
Seven years is a long time in which to think about where to go on a long tour and how to make it the best possible experience. Though I never intended to spend that much time on those activities, in reality, that was how long it took between my first personal commitment to make the Tour happen and the day when I finally set sail across the Pacific. The primary causes for that lengthy delay were, as might be expected, the need to gather the necessary funds, and to be able to disentangle myself from "normal" career-type commitments. To maintain my sanity during those years, when it often looked like the Tour would never happen, I passed the time by doing my best to consider all the possible destinations for the Stages, all the logistical problems that might arise, schedules that would avoid climate problems, which gear to take along, and many similar aspects.
With every postponement of my planned starting date, many of those considerations needed to be revised from scratch, providing me with seemingly endless hours of work, and rework. That was not necessarily a bad thing, as the time I spent planning the Tour, in anticipation of what I would actually see once it began, was almost as much fun as the ride itself. Additionally, I felt confident that all the effort I put into thinking about ways to make the Tour run smoothly would pay off and afford me a more enjoyable ride with fewer distractions. In reality, of course, no one can predict exactly what problems may arise, or what changes to the plan might be forced by matters outside of one's own control. The only thing I knew for sure was that I would not give up on the Tour until I had ridden every kilometer that I intended to, and had seen all places which I had thought about for so long. Here is a description of what I anticipated correctly and where my ideas went astray.
The Stage Routes & Schedules
While many tourists like to make up their route as they go, I preferred to research thoroughly all of the possible destinations in advance. There were two reasons for that, one was that I wanted to make sure that I did not accidentally bypass any interesting attractions, as I have often done in the past. The main reason, however, was that I simply really enjoy doing that sort of thing; spending hours painstakingly examining maps and scouring the Web, all the while trying to imagine what it would be like once I actually got to those places. In the end, I did fairly well in identifying many interesting places to see, but there was still a lot of uncertainty around exactly what the cycling conditions would be in all of those locations. While I am usually incredibly reluctant to remove a destination from my planned route once I have made up my mind to go there, I certainly am not beyond rerouting to avoid days of unpleasant riding on heavily trafficked roads, for example. Finally, there was the huge cloud of ambiguity caused by the inexact science of locating and scheduling ocean crossings on container ships. Consequently, I knew that somewhere along the way I would have to make some major changes to my route. Here's how it all settled out:
Stage 1: Australia turned out to be the Stage with the fewest changes to my plans. That is not really surprising, since, once one leaves the populated areas of the east coast, there really are few opportunities to deviate from the main highways. Once you start out on one of the Outback highways, it can be up to two thousand kilometers before the next opportunity to change course appears. With that in mind, apart from a few minor traffic-caused changes around some of the eastern cities, the only deviation from my plan came when I was forced to end the Stage early, at Shark Bay instead of Fremantle, when my next ship canceled its port call there. This was completely annoying, as it forced me to make an unplanned air transfer. (Days-expected: 159, Days-actual: 156; Distance-expected: 16,199 km; Distance-actual: 16,602 km)
Stage 2: In Asia, part of the Stage came off just as I planned, but there were some big changes as well. I arrived on schedule, actually slightly ahead of schedule and, after a few extra days for errands in Singapore, started the ride only two days after my originally planned date. The first big change came when I was in Thailand, and found myself watching a Thai television program about some local riders cycling through Laos. To me, it looked like a great place, and I thought it would be a shame to be in the area and not visit that country. So, I added Laos to my itinerary, which necessitated another visa, and some major route changes, notably eliminating most of my planned route through northern Thailand. Overall, I thought that change worked out quite well, as I really enjoyed Laos. The next deviation was in Myanmar, where the abysmal conditions of the road surfaces, and other factors, caused me to run out of time to catch my flight out of the country before completing my planned loop. That was only a matter of a cutting a couple days of riding out, so I was not too bothered by that.
For the next couple of months, my route was pretty close to what I planned, apart from numerous minor changes in India while trying to find the least-crowded roadways. However, both my visits to the Himalayas took a bit longer than I had expected; Bhutan by a couple of days, and Tibet by a few more. Of course, I was not exactly surprised by that, but with those delays, and others along the way, I was by then about two weeks behind my planned schedule. I had initially hoped that I could find sea transport from Sri Lanka, or southern India, to Africa for Stage 3, but nothing materialized that could help me with that goal. Instead, the only reasonable ship that I could use sailed from Mumbai, on India's west coast. Because of that, by the time I left Nepal, I had only 45 days remaining before my ship departed Mumbai. The shortage of time and a new departure destination meant a complete rework of my route through India, which was unfortunate, as that country was probably the most important section of the Stage for me. While I was forced to miss some places that I had wanted to see, a number of interesting new places presented themselves along my revised route, so as it turned out I did all right in terms of visiting India's important cultural sites. Instead of riding to the southern end of India before visiting Sri Lanka, I departed for that island country from the more northerly city of Bubaneshwar. That was a little unfortunate, because I think I really would have found the southeast coast of the country rather interesting. The final section was completely new, specifically, a route from Chennai, across to Goa on the west coast, and then north to Mumbai. However, when I reached Goa, with just enough time left to reach Mumbai on time, the annual monsoons arrived a little early and my bike also gave out for good. Because of those situations I ended the stage a few days early, at Goa. (Days-expected: 154, Days-actual: 199; Distance-expected: 16,261 km; Distance-actual: 17,587 km)
Stage 3: Since I had not been able to locate any passenger-carrying ships bound for Africa before the Tour began, I suspected that my route for Stage 3 would need to be modified. As it turned out, the vagaries of shipping affected both the Start and end of the route quite a bit. I had hoped to arrive on the continent at Mombassa, Kenya, but was unable to locate a ship calling there, or anywhere else on the continent for that matter, that would take me on board. So I was forced to go on the only ship available, which could only get me as close to Africa as southern Italy. That caused an expensive transfer to Cairo, where I first set foot on the continent. As I didn't have time to start from there and still reach South Africa on time, I skipped over Egypt and Sudan, which was not too disappointing to me, apart from yet another unwanted air transfer, and made Axum, Ethiopia my new starting point. By the time I had worked all that out, I had already become rather enamored with the addition of Ethipoia to the route, and despite the often tough, slow conditions there, with similar difficulties in the additional new territory in northern Kenya that also had to be added, I was pleased that I ended up seeing that interesting country.
The middle of the Stage went off close to what I had expected with one exception. I decided to add Rwanda and Burundi to the route, which I feel were worthwhile places to have seen. Doing so allowed me, or rather, forced me, to use the Lake Tanganyika ferry, the M.V. Liemba to get back on course, which I quite enjoyed. The delays caused by that detour, and the addition of Ethiopia, forced me to skip half of my planned route on Madagascar, which annoyed me greatly, as that island is one of my favorite places. The end of the route proved to be rather ironic. I had originally planed to end in Cape Town, but changed that to Durban, to meet a ship there that was bound for South America. After nearly exhausting myself trying to get to Durban on time, which I just barely expected to do, the ship I was to meet was cancelled with less than two weeks before I was to depart. The result was, I was able to reach Cape Town after all, and my route there was fairly close to my initial plan. By the time I finished the Stage, despite all the delays and adjustments that had occurred on the first three continents, I was only six weeks behind my earliest plan, and I felt very good about that. (Days-expected: 136, Days-actual: 162; Distance-expected: 11,726 km; Distance-actual: 14,281 km)
Stage 4: As soon as Stage 3 ended all hell broke loose with my schedule and routes, however. One big reason for that was the incredibly complicated sea transfer that I had to work out for the Atlantic crossing, which delayed me by an additional six or seven weeks beyond what I had already accrued. As far as the Stage route was concerned, it is hard to comment on additions and deviations in that case. Since I was never sure in which city, or at what time I would arrive, right up until I finally did touch ground, I had worked out at least three different Stage routes. Initially, I expected to arrive in Buenos Aires in late November, then that changed to Rio de Janeiro in mid-December, after that came a period of uncertainty when I thought I could even arrive, by air, at the northern Brazilian city of Fortaleza in around the New Year. In reality, I arrived in Buenos Aires in mid-February. Because of the change of seasons at the southern tip of the continent, and the great distances between the potential starting pints, all of the possible routes were quite different. The specifics in the various regions, Patagonia, the Andes, Southern Brazil, for example, were reasonably similar in each case, but the pieces were all arranged differently.
With the late start of the Stage imposed on me by the ships, it seemed unlikely that I could reach home before the onset of winter, as I had hoped. For that reason, I allowed myself to add new regions to the route, lengthening it to facilitate a return the following spring. New territories added were; Brazil, north of Paranagua, Rio, the Cerrado and the Pantanal; a portion of northern Argentina; a side trip to the Islas Galapagos; and Colombia as far as Cartageņa. I had also planed to add a tour in Venezuela as well, but removed that later on. With the extra distance, my increasing level of tiredness, and the absence of the deadlines, such as those that had been created by upcoming ocean crossing in the first three Stages, Stage 4 progressed much more slowly than I would ever have expected. That was despite my earnest intentions to keep to a faster pace from then on out. By the time the Stage was complete, I was over nine months behind my original schedule. (Days-expected: 212, Days-actual: 408; Distance-expected: 20,710 km; Distance-actual: 28,157 km)
Stage 5: For practical reasons I should have skipped Stage 5 altogether, but I just couldn't bring myself to do that. The final route was fairly close to my intended course, with some rather minor changes. I stayed close to the west coast of Costa Rica and Nicaragua I order to avoid climbing to elevation in the heat unnecessarily. For a similar reason, as well as to avoid losing more time, once I reached Oaxaca, Mexico I chose to head directly north along the central plateau, as opposed to riding along the Gulf Coast. Finally, after returning to the United States, the tour of the national parks of the Southwest I had wanted to do was mercifully jettisoned, due to lack of time and lack of money. (Days-expected: 108, Days-actual: 130; Distance-expected: 11,116 km; Distance-actual: 9,781 km)
As can easily be seen, though the route of the whole Tour seems close to what I had intended, there were still a large number of changes made along the way, and they made a big difference in the length of time needed for the whole Tour, increasing from the 903 days I though it might take, to 1,207. Of course most of those extra days were quite enjoyable, as were the new places I didn't expect to see.
Wat Nong, in Luang Pra Bang, Laos;
a town I wouldn't have seen on my original route
The Rock-Hewn Curches of Lalibela, Ethiopia;
another place I wouldn't have seen
The Ocean Crossings
My decision to avoid long airplane flights during the Tour certainly made planning and executing the Tour much more complicated than it otherwise could have been. I never regretted that fact, though, by necessity, I needed to expend a lot of mental, not to mention financial, resources dealing with the ever-changing world of commercial shipping. When one books passage on a container ship, the agents go to great lengths to ensure that passengers know that ships rarely run on schedule, ports can be added or removed from the itinerary, and the cruise can even be cancelled at a moments notice. Of course, that sort of thing is only supposed to happen to other people's trips, and I had hopes that for the four ocean crossings I would possess enough good karma earned during the rest of the Tour to avoid such occurrences.
Well, I obviously did not, for of the seven actual, or reserved, cruises that I employed, two were cancelled completely due to port call eliminations, one required an early end to the cycling part of a Stage, one was more than ten days behind schedule, and, of the ten embarkation or disembarkation ports, only four had been my first choices, and getting to, or from, the remaining six always involved an unwanted transfer of some sort. Here is the rundown:
M.V. Direct Kestrel: Long Beach to Melbourne. This was one of the better crossings. However, in the ship's previous cruises, it stopped at Oakland, which is very close to my previous home. I would have much preferred to sail from there, especially as I would have been able to say goodbye to my home by sliding under the Golden Gate Bridge. My sister lives near Long Beach, however, and so as an alternate, that was not too troublesome.
M.V. Theodor Storm: Adelaide to Singapore. I booked this cruise before I left home and at the time the dates and ports seemed perfect. However, I was scheduled to join the ship at Fremantle, in Western Australia, but that plan was scuttled when, at the last minute, the ship cancelled its call there. I almost flew directly to Singapore, but I couldn't bring myself to do that, and instead skipped the end of the Stage, transferred to Adelaide by bus and plane, and joined there.
M.V. London Senator: Mumbai to Gioia Tauro, Italy. I really wanted to leave Asia from Colombo, or one of the southern Indian ports, and sail to Mombassa, Kenya, or thereabouts. However, no passenger-carrying ships were available on that route. Instead, I took this ship, and other than the two very inconvenient ports, this cruise went off fairly well.
M.V. Conti Malaga: [Durban to Rio de Janeiro]. I booked this ship while I was in Tibet, and it seemed to have an almost ideal itinerary. However, shortly before it was due to reach Durban, the line eliminated all stops in Africa, and sailed directly to South America from Asia. Leaving me stranded.
M.V. MSC Geneva: Cape Town to Las Palmas, Spain. This was the alternate to the previous ship, though it only could take me halfway to where I needed to be. Apart from running two days late, the cruise went well.
M.V. Cala Pintada: [Las Palmas to Rio de Janeiro]. This was to be the second leg of the Atlantic crossing, but it cancelled its call at Las Palmas. I also learned that they would not have taken me in any case, since I am a US citizen.
M.N. Repubblica Argentina: Bilbao, Spain to Buenos Aires. This was the last option available to get me to South America. It was the ship that was ten days behind schedule, and with is ten intermediate ports, it took a very long time under the best of circumstances.
The Repubblica Argentina at Banjul, The Gambia;
a place I never expected to be
Supplies and Logistics
Once I had decided to add the sea transfers by container ship to the Tour plan, I knew that I would have at least a couple of weeks between stages, which I could use to manage all of the photos I had taken along the way, work on updates to the site and the slideshows, and overhaul the bike and my gear. So I decided to make those breaks my major supply drops. The plan was to have my laptop sent to the port at which I would embark, and since I was sending that in a sturdy shipping crate, I would include all the replacement parts I expected to need, my pouch of bike tools, fresh clothes, and whatever other miscellaneous supplies I though could come in handy. Despite my excruciatingly detailed preparations and the instructions I left at home, those shipments were never stress-free.
Because of the port change in Australia, and my early departure, I had to rely on the kindness of a customs agent there, who examined my box in person and cleared it with only an hour to spare. I can't even adequately describe the customs house in India, and I still can't believe that I got my box out of there and made it to my ship on time. In South Africa, things were a little easier, but it still took an impromptu interview by a passing supervisor for me to convince the agent to release my belongings to me. When I neared the end of Stage 4, and the last planned shipment, I expected similar hassles, but that was taken to a new level when the person I had arranged to help me with the shipments dropped out of contact, leaving me hanging without most of my supplies. In addition to the problems with customs, tracking, the oppressive paperwork requirements, an even bigger drawback of that plan was the costs of the shipments which always seemed to be considerably higher than the quotes I received before I left home. Add on top of that the often-shocking duties tacked on by the receiving countries, despite the fact that I left those countries within 48 hours of receiving the shipments, and declared all of the contents as personal effects. While I certainly appreciated having my computer, and all the other items, while I was at sea, the hassle and cost probably was excessive, and if I had it all to do over again, I would probably try to find an alternative solution.
The main parts shipments were the most important in terms of long-term maintenance during the Tour, but there were several other times I needed to have bike parts, or clothing, sent to me. I received those packages in Moree, Australia; Dhaka, Bangladesh; Moshi, Tanzania; Lilongwe, Malawi; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Resistencia, Argentina; Salta, Argentina; Potosi, Bolivia; Lima, Peru; and Guayaquil, Ecuador. Notable hassles receiving these included, a 3-day quarantine of a brand new rim in Australia; a delay by the sender, causing me to spend two extra days in Dhaka; an incomplete address on a shipment of tires to Tanzania, which I never received; and, the most aggravating, a box that disappeared into the black hole of Argentine customs for over six months. Of course, all of these were subject to the same shocking customs duties that my main shipments were, and that made needing them all the more annoying.
A number of other incidents made things more complicated, including my internet provider being bought by another company –twice– voiding my passwords on both occasions, and some scoundrel making a clone of one of my credit cards and going on a shopping spree at high-end Paris department stores. I suppose that I correctly anticipated many other problems that all my planning helped me avoid, and if I had not done as much in advance as I did, I might have been beset by other, more serious problems. After all, though there were some close calls, I never missed a ship, plane, or train, I received virtually all of my supplies, eventually (expect for the one box that was never sent,) and I was never stranded anywhere for more than a few days.
One final thought; I have nothing but admiration for those who did grand tours in the age before the Internet. I can't imagine how much more challenging things would have been back then.
Note: Some of the information in this section is also presented graphically on the Charts & Graphs page.
Ah, yes, the Budget. Perhaps the only information on this page that anyone actually cares about. I probably filled spreadsheets with up to 100 different cost scenarios during the time I was planning the Tour. Of course, most of that was just guesswork, so it not surprising that I wasn't really that close to the actual costs I incurred. I knew, as a matter of choice, that I did not want to start the Tour unless I could do so without excessively having to pinch pennies the entire time, a factor which contributed to the many years it took me to arrange the Tour in the first place. While I certainly never complained about days during which I spent very little, and there were a considerable number of those, I also was not willing to skip experiences that interested me simply because they cost more than I had anticipated. So it became a balancing act between days that were affordable, and those with unexpectedly high costs. In the end, external costs proved to be such a large factor that keeping track of daily expenses was rather less than relevant.
In planning my costs, I paid the most attention to the largest factors, which were also the ones that I had the most control over, food, and accommodation. Food is something that is too important for a successful long tour, in my opinion, to be skimped on in any way. My strategy was to have a daily budget equal to what I would spend on tour in the United States ($30.00/day,) with the assumption that most places on the route would be much less costly than that. In that way, I would use the leftover funds to balance out other areas where I underestimated expenses. For accommodations, I planned on camping most of the time, as I always had done on earlier tours, and so I budgeted for two or three nights per week indoors, at a total cost of $75/week, which, I hoped, would be adequate to cover a mid-range to basic place. However, I had not had much experience with hotels in various parts of the world, and so I was not really sure if that would be adequate or not. For the rest of my expected expenses, sightseeing, transport, bike parts, visas, etc, I made every effort to determine what the actual costs would be before leaving home.
As far as daily expenses were concerned my results were mixed. In Stage 1, I did fairly well, holding close on food, but overrunning of most other areas, especially accommodations, which in Australia were, on average, the most costly of the Tour. Food costs in Stage 2 were the lowest of any stage, but, due to the crowded nature of Asia, I was forced to give up on camping beyond Bangladesh, and stayed indoors for virtually the rest of the Stage. Most places in Asia have affordable lodging of some sort, usually very basic, and I could have stayed in such places every night and not run over budget. However, there are few intermediate choices between those and the very upscale hotels. It was necessary, and also a nice change of pace, to stay at the later from time to time, in order to clean up and cool off. However, a few nights in places like that completely counteract the savings gained from the more simple lodgings. In Africa, on Stage 3, I did a little better. Food costs were reasonable, and I was able to camp a little more, though not as much as I would have liked.
However, the primary occasions where I miscalculated costs through the first three stages, and beyond, were for the "Big Ticket" items, which were, almost without exception, considerably more costly than I had expected. Examples of these were tours in parks and attractions, transportation, guide services in Tibet, shipments of supplies, and safaris in Africa. All of these ended up costing much more that the prices I researched on the Web before I left home. A big reason for that was that I was a solo traveler and without splitting the costs with other tourists, which I would have happily have done most of the time, but which never quite worked out, I was forced to pay extra surcharges.
The Barco Peralta on the Rio Paraguai, in Brazil;
another budget buster
The single biggest reason that I exceeded my budget, however, was the transfers between stages. The quotations for passage on the various ships were fairly accurate, except where I needed to take a much longer route, such as the Stage 3 to 4 transfer, so I had budgeted that aspect correctly. However, as was mentioned above, almost all of the transfers involved some alternate plans that I could not have anticipated. I had not tried to calculate my potential expenses in the port cities during the transfers, because I had no real idea of which cities they would be and how long I would be there. I had hoped that could keep costs down by holding those stays to a minimum. Of course, that was a quixotic fantasy. A flight to Adelaide, over a week in expensive Singapore, a multi segment transfer from Italy to Ethiopia with stops in Athens and Cairo, and two weeks in Spain waiting for a ship, all together, completely blew out any hopes I had of holding the line on costs. I could have tried, I suppose, to cut corners excessively in those cases, but big cities like those are not the most pleasant places to do that, and during the transfers I was usually so tired that I didn't mind splashing for a slight amount of luxury.
By the time I was ready to start Stage 4, I knew that I needed to make a more concerted effort to watch expenses. However, after the first few months of that Stage, beyond the cold and winds of Patagonia, and, after realizing that I was so far over budget that I couldn't really expect to catch up, I did probably the exact opposite of what a sane person would do. Namely, I just said to my self " Oh, screw it!" and essentially stopped paying much attention to daily expenses. That contributed to my lazy attitude towards camping, which found me indoors on most days when the weather wasn't ideal, which it wasn't for a large fraction of the Stage, and also to my more relaxed pace, which ballooned the length of the Stage from an original 212 days to an unbelievable 408. Both of those factors caused that Stage to be the most costly by far. Daily expenses for Stage 5 were not far behind until my resources ran thin and I was finally forced to start paying attention to those sorts of things again.
Below is a table indicating the level that I miscalculated costs for the various Stages. The values are the percentage that actual costs exceeded, or did not, my original estimates. The various categories should only be compared Stage-to-Stage and not to each other, as the base values are extremely different between categories. Though it appears that everything was many times more costly than I planned, it is not as bad as it seems. If the above-mentioned transfers, big tickets, and the 300 extra days that I spent on the Tour are accounted for I actually did not do too bad.
* Actual number of days in Stage 4 was 192% of the originally planned amount.
** Does not include two very large parts orders sent from the USA
Looking at this page, it may appear that the Tour was a continuous case of changed plans and cost overruns. However, in the big picture, I think the Tour worked out almost exactly as I had planned, I wanted to do a long tour on five continents, seeing as many of the most compelling places along the way as possible, and that's what I did. In the unlikely event that I do another Grand Tour someday, I think that I will now be able to nail down the details in advace, even more precisely. Nothing beats experience!
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